GLASGOW have left their new British and Irish Lions on the bench for tonight’s final RaboDirect Pro12 league match at Connacht with a view to stirring up fresh competition for the crucial play-off match next week.
Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend insisted that Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland were not being rested to protect them ahead of the Lions tour but that the selection was a combination of the standard protocol for resting players who have started a lengthy run of games, nursing players with knocks and ensuring through competition that he has eager players on form to face what is expected to be Leinster in Dublin in the RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final a week tomorrow.
All league matches kick-off at 7.45pm tonight so Glasgow will know at full-time exactly where their semi-final will be next weekend, with Dublin, Belfast and Glasgow all still possibilities. The Warriors need to win and Leinster or Ulster to lose to return to Scotstoun next week.
Claiming a third semi-final in four years has stirred excitement throughout the Glasgow squad and lifted their desire to be part of the title bid. Peter Murchie has been pushing Hogg hard throughout the season but the full-back, who picked up an award for Most Improved Player at the recent awards dinner, has been forced to sit and watch Hogg in the last three games.
He is pleased for the 20-year-old, and well aware that Hogg’s Lions selection means the Scotland No 15 jersey has become vacant for the June tournament in South Africa.
“At the moment, the focus is purely on this game against Connacht,” stated Murchie, “and I’m delighted to get the chance to start and play a part in what I hope will be a first win over there in six years.
“I am delighted for Hoggy. It’s a massive honour and he deserves it. But the last game I played for Glasgow [against Leinster in March] I was pretty pleased with it and was disappointed not to be playing the next week against Munster, or in the last two games [against Scarlets and Ospreys].
“There will probably be about 30 guys who could be expecting to be in the semi-final squad, maybe even more, so there are going to be a lot of disappointed boys, but especially for the guys who haven’t played for a few weeks this is a great opportunity to push.
“If we put in a good performance it makes life difficult for a coach to change around the team.
“With Scotland there’s obviously going to be a gap there now because Stuart’s been the full-back, and there will be others with their eye on it this summer so this is an opportunity for me to show what I can do. But, and this sounds cliched, that is secondary in the thoughts at the moment to what we’re doing with Glasgow at present.”
Townsend believes changing his side is what has kept them competitive and motivated, and training intensity high, but he was criticised when the Warriors lost at the Scarlets after a handful of changes to the side.
He has made nine this week to the team that beat the Ospreys 35-17 at Scotstoun last month, knowing that, should Ospreys beat Leinster in Dublin tonight – and possibly sneak past Scarlets into the play-offs – and Glasgow lose, then they would cost themselves the chance of a home semi-final.
Joining Hogg and Maitland on the bench are Niko Matawalu, Ryan Grant and Josh Strauss, while Alex Dunbar, Graeme Morrison, Al Kellock – whose wife gave birth to a second child, Ruaridh, this week – and the injured Duncan Weir drop out of the squad altogether for the trip to Galway.
But such is the depth of the squad that it is difficult to spot a weakness. Moray Low and Jon Welsh step up their new careers on the opposite sides of the scrum to where they started, alongside Pat MacArthur. Tom Ryder returns at lock with Tim Swinson and Ryan Wilson takes over as No 8 and captain.
Murchie is joined in the back three by Tommy Seymour and DTH van der Merwe – now the joint top try-scorer with Thom Evans – Sean Lamont returns to outside centre with Peter Horne at inside centre, and Ruaridh Jackson and Henry Pyrgos are back together at half-back. One former Glasgow player in the Connacht ranks could have as big a say as any Warrior in the way the game goes, however, as Dan Parks starts at stand-off.
The former Scotland No 10 was always a master of the kicking tricks but, at the notoriously windy Galway Sportsground, he has been adept at using the elements to steer his side to success. They have a total of eight wins this season and are one away from a new record. With coach Eric Elwood and flanker Johnny O’Connor retiring, there will also be extra emotion in the air.
“I’ve never played against him [Parks] before,” said Murchie, “but he loves kicking reverse kicks, down the line, aerial and crossfield kicks so, as a full-back, you’ve got to be aware of his body shape, where he’s standing and take the cues to get in the right position.
“But it’s not all about Dan Parks. It’s mainly about us. It’s important that we win going into the semi-final and I’m not giving up the ghost on a home semi because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Connacht: 15 G Duffy (capt), 14 D Poolman, 13 E Griffin, 12 B Murphy, 11 F Vainikolo, 10 D Parks, 9 K Marmion; 1 B Wilkinson, 2 E Reynecke, 3 R Loughney, 4 M Swift, 5 M McCarthy, 6 A Browne, 7 J O’Connor, 8 E McKeon. Subs: 16 A Flavin, 17 R Ah You, 18 JP Cooney, 19 M Kearney, 20 J Muldoon, 21 M Fifita, 22 P O’Donohoe, 23 M Nikora.
Glasgow: 15 P Murchie, 14 T Seymour, 13 S Lamont, 12 P Horne, 11 DTH Van der Merwe, 10 R Jackson, 9 H Pyrgos; 1 M Low, 2 P MacArthur, 3 J Welsh, 4 T Swinson, 5 T Ryder, 6 R Harley, 7 J Barclay, 8 R Wilson (capt). Subs: 16 D Hall, 17 R Grant, 18 E Kalman, 19 J Eddie, 20 J Strauss, 21 N Matawalu, 22 S Maitland, 23 S Hogg.